There’s not much in the news these days to cheer us up. Brexit is a political disaster driven by a collection of snollygosters and throttlebottoms; President Erdogan of Turkey is hellbent on causing mayhem and misery to the Kurdish and Syrian people who live on the Syrian side of the Turkey-Syria border; Chile is in flames over the rising cost of living and ever-increasing rich-poor divide; the Amazon rainforest is fast disappearing under Bolsonaro’s presidency; and nobody cares about the plight of the Palestinians anymore. But, one thing cheered me up recently – ‘Happy to Chat’ signs appearing on park benches.
A 53-year-old lady from Cardiff, Allison Owen-Jones, observed an elderly man sitting alone on a park bench for 40 minutes. During that time, she noticed that nobody stopped to say hello or chose to sit beside him. Was he lonely? Did he want to be alone? Or was he just looking for a bit of company? And then, Allison had her brilliant idea. Why not make a few ‘Happy to Chat’ placards and place them on the back of some of the park benches so that anyone in need of temporary company could elect to sit on the bench and, as it were, offer themselves up for a bit of chat?
The idea has gone viral. A UK senior citizen charity is liaising with local police forces to select appropriate park benches and even approve and allow chat-bench volunteers. The idea is not only spreading across the UK; organisations in Canada, United States, Switzerland, Ukraine and Australia have begun to adopt the practice, thus demonstrating the power of social media.
It truly is a remarkable concept. Since we’ve retired, my wife and I have gone regularly to a chalet in the alpine Swiss village/municipality of Gryon. Gryon is close to a major ski area, Villars-sur-Ollon, but retains much of its original village attributes, that is, it has not been overrun by large hotels and other amenities designed to attract winter sports tourists. One of the things I noticed when we first started going to Gryon was that if you walk down to the local grocery store, Marché Gryonnais, anybody you met on the walk down the road – man, woman or child – always said ‘Bonjour’. It’s a nice gesture and I’ve noticed the same in other Swiss villages and close-by French villages and towns. But, not so here in the UK unless it’s a very small community where everyone knows everyone. In my experience, it’s rare that strangers greet each other. The exceptions are if you are walking along a footpath, with or without a dog, or hiking along a long-distance path. Long-distance walkers always greet each other.
I like Allison Owen-Jones’s initiative. Lonely elderly people like to talk, to share their lifetime experiences, pass on hard-won wisdom, enquire about new social trends, and so on and, one day, I may have to take advantage of it. Let us hope, however, that the idea won’t be exploited and abused by those appearing to be friendly but with nefarious objectives. Perfidious knaves and rapscallions, keep away! Only genuine bench-chatters need apply.